Immigrant brings touch of Bangladeshi kindness to Korean courts
A naturalized Korean from Bangladesh has become a small but important part of the Korean criminal justice system.
He calls himself Yang Mo-min, a Korean name he adopted when he was naturalized in 2009. “Mo-min” is derived from his Bengali name, Mohammed Abdul Momen, and momen in Bengali means a reliable and kind person.
He came to Korea in 1996 and dedicated himself to learning the language. In 2013, he got his first job interpreting in a Korean court. “I was so nervous at first that I would make a mistake,” said Yang, 49. Now he's a full-time judicial interpreter in trials and investigations by prosecutors and police involving defendants or suspects who speak Bengali, his native tongue.
“I interpret more than 100 cases a year,” added Yang.
Yang was born in Brahmanbaria, Bangladesh and majored in accounting at university. He moved to Korea when he was 23 on the recommendation of a friend living here. His first job was near Euljiro at a publishing house. He did everything from driving trucks to translating documents in English. After that, he worked for six years teaching English.
“I went through a lot,” said Yang, smiling. Even so, his Korean kept improving and his natural friendliness helped him build relationships with people around him.
An acquaintance working in the court system encouraged Yang to pursue judicial interpretation. He had worked as an interpreter many times before, but judicial interpreting was a whole other story, Yang said. The job actually intimidated him because if an interpreter makes a mistake in a trial, the consequences can be felt by the defendant. He “clenched his teeth” and pushed on.
The “Judicial Interpreter’s Handbook” at Yang’s office is full of highlighted passages and handwritten notes. “If anyone involved in the case starts using Korean or Bengali dialects, it gets very difficult,” said Yang. “I’m still studying until late into the night because I’m afraid of making a mistake.”
According to National Police Agency’s statistics, there were 172 Bangladeshi nationals charged with crimes in 2020, an increase from 106 in 2018. Many cases are related to acts of violence, sexual offenses, illegal stays in Korea and refugee recognition.
Yang registered as a judicial interpreter with the Office of Court Administration in 2015, and registered as a professional translator with the Seoul Central District Court this year.
According to statistics from the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, the number of foreigners prosecuted for crimes increased from 4,927 cases in 2019 to 5,028 cases last year. As the number of foreign crimes increases, Yang’s work has also increased and become more important.
Yang is passionate about studying all things Korea, including the law and judicial systems. “You need to know how many ministers there are, and how the Korean government system works,” said Yang. “You need to know how the country is run to interpret the law better.
“What people say needs to be delivered just as it is, and confidential information should never be leaked by the interpreter,” he cautioned. But he is often proud of his work. "When people say they could muster the courage to stand trial because they trusted me, I feel proud."
People taking the judicial interpreter exams in less commonly used languages like Bengali need to be prepared for difficulties, he warned. There are no mock tests available in those languages as there are in English and Chinese.
Yang also works as a consultant at the Korea Support Center for Foreign Workers. He helps Bengali-speakers who have trouble communicating after something unfair has happened to them, such as unpaid wages or sexual abuse.
“I want to become an interpreter who deals with international matters as well," Yang said, "and become a bridge between Bangladesh and Korea.”
BY HAM MIN-JUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]